South Sea Tales was written in a time of radical change for Robert Louis Stevenson. In her work Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific,1Roslyn Jolly has insightfully summed up the great shifts the period entailed,
“Stevenson embarked on a radical change, shifting from romance to realism, and from the domain of the sentimental traveller to that of the anthropologist”, Jolly writes. “Other discourses came to fore. History, in which he had always maintained a serious interest and had once had professional ambitions, but which had hitherto been subsumed into his production of romantic fiction, emerged as a field in which he would make a startlingly modern and experimental contribution. Law, the discarded compromise profession of his youth, now found its way into his fiction, history, travel-writing and political journalism, and provided Stevenson’s most important conceptual apparatus for working through the problems of race, government and cultural difference with which he was confronted in the Pacific.”2
Yet more generally, his sojourn in the Pacific made Robert Louis reconsider his own position in the world. Not only did his writing change, but so did his perspective on life in general. He reconsidered the hitherto undivided attention he had given to his art and in turn wished to expand his interests in and influence on his surroundings. In a letter of 1894, he wrote:
“…the problem that Pinkerton laid down: why the artist can do nothing else? is one that continually exercises myself. He cannot: granted. But Scott could. And Montaigne. And Julius Caesar. And many more. And why can’t R.L.S.?“3
On his work on his plantation, he wrote in another letter from 1891:
“I will get more out of that than all the gaudiness of the Academy. But I would rather, from soon on, be released from the obligation to write. In five or six years, this plantation – suppose it and us still exist – should pretty well support us and pay wages: not before, and already the six years seem long to me. If literature were but a pastime!“4
As many have well-noted, with South Sea Tales Robert Louis Stevenson prefigured Joseph Conrad in its articulation of realism and the nightmarish visions of imperialism; what’s more, he also made the view of a multicultural world widely available to readers. These tales comprise a penetrating critique of colonialism avant le lettre that confounded and disappointed many faithful readers.
Stylometry can help us visualize and gauge precisely how radical South Sea Tales truly is in comparison to classic Robert Louis. These analyses provide us with new vantage points from which we can make sense of his oeuvre as a whole.
In and of themselves these graphs do not add to our knowledge of South Sea Tales, which can only be increased through reading and attentive interpretation; yet they do provide us with an exacting vision of Robert Louis’ departure from his previous work.